"The Thousandth Night" at the Colony is a reprise production of a solo show that has been making the rounds since 1993. Better than ever, this latest outing is a near-perfect fusion of Carol Wolf's text, Jessica Kubzansky's staging and Ron Campbell's protean performance as a hapless Jewish entertainer who, futilely and heroically, uses his storyteller's art to bargain his way out of a fatal date with the Nazis.
The action is set in 1943, about two years after the German occupation of France. Susan Gratch's dilapidated, fittingly creepy train station set and Jeremy Pivnick's shadowy lighting could double for a horror movie, while John Zalewski's wonderful sound design, with its screeching train sounds, frantic offstage voices and crackling gunshots, affirms the general air of expectant terror. About 50 miles east of Paris, this train station is just one of many embarkation points for the Nazis' proliferating death trains, no return ticket required.
Into this atmosphere of demoralization and disorder bursts Guy de Bonheur (Campbell), a French music-hall performer who is about to be shipped off to Buchenwald as a dissident. Masking his terror under a believable bonhomie, Guy sets out to convince the station's French officials that his deportation for anti-Nazi propaganda would be a huge mistake. To illustrate just how harmless his entertainments really are, Guy recapitulates his oeuvre, playing all the characters himself. The stories, folk tales derived from "The Arabian Nights," are as entertaining as they are seemingly inoffensive. Scratch the surface, however, and you uncover the covertly subversive core.
Guy de Bonheur is a beautifully wrought character requiring the physical expertise of a master mime, the comedic instincts of a seasoned vaudevillian and the dramatic virtuosity of a consummate tragedian. Under Kubzansky's skillful tutelage, Campbell richly fulfills all the requirements. His valiant, pitiable protagonist, who foolishly thought he could escape the Nazis' net through meek compliance, learns the folly of his silence too late to escape his fate, but just in time to reclaim his manhood.
-- F. Kathleen Foley
"The Thousandth Night," Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call for additional dates. Ends July 15. $37-$42. (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
'Palace of the End' packs a punch
Sadly, the Iraq war has already spawned numerous plays, some more theatrically apt than others, and "Palace of the End" raises the bar. In its taut West Coast premiere at the NoHo Arts Center, Canadian playwright Judith Thompson's trio of monologues examines the consequences of U.S. intervention in Iraq with a restrained power that is hard to shake. By giving fictional voice to three divergent real-life perspectives, Thompson disarms resistance to her unsparing overview.
Commissioned last year by New York's Epic Theatre Company, "Palace" grew out of its first monologue, in which Pfc. Lynndie England (Kate Mines) speaks out about becoming the notorious poster girl for Abu Ghraib. Her unnerving soliloquy gives way to the late British weapon expert David Kelly (Michael Catlin) during the last moments of his life following his BBC bombshell about manipulated intelligence. The searing finale concerns Nehrjas (Anna Khaja), an Iraqi communist casualty of the Persian Gulf War, who spectrally recalls the CIA-funded Baathist coup and Saddam Hussein's torture castle, whose nickname provided the play's title.
Firmly focused on Thompson's elegiac, beautifully specific writing, this 49th Parallel Theatre production packs a mean punch, and directors Sara Botsford and CB Brown send their superbly invested actors on a collision course with our nerve endings. In terms of audience empathy, Mines as England has perhaps the toughest assignment, which she meets fearlessly. Although Catlin's sonorous diction recalls Ralph Richardson as much as Kelly, his emotional acuity is absolute, and Khaja relates Nehrjas' unspeakable saga with preternatural control.
Against the subtle effects of Luke Moyer's lighting and Alfred Madain's sound, the cast cuts to the quick of Thompson's precis and our defenses. "Palace of the End" is as quietly unforgettable as it is purposely rending.
-- David C. Nichols
"Palace of the End," NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 8. Adult audiences. $20. (818) 752-4709 or www.thenohoartscenter.com. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
A 'Monster' and Adam and Eve
Of the inalienable rights cited in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness might be the most vulnerable to subjective interpretation. That makes it perfect for Tina Kronis and Richard Alger, who turn this quest on its 21st century head in "Monster of Happiness" at the 24th Street Theatre.
Using the Adam and Eve story to underpin its study of a Happy Man and Happy Woman whose inner thoughts emerge on the soundtrack, "Monster" combines the movement discipline of Meyerhold and the fluidity of the Soviet film constructivists.
That inspiration is detectable everywhere, including in designer Jeff Webster's deceptively utilitarian set and the slew of effects from Chris Kuhl's lighting. The desaturated film sequences, which feature a dizzying array of notable experimental artists, are remarkable.
As ever, Kronis and Alger -- known as the Theatre Movement Bazaar -- make a marvelous team, swanning about in Ellen McCartney's deconstructed costumes. Spouting affirmations or segueing into a tango, Alger's arch, aquiline presence is ideally coordinated with Kronis' mesmeric blend of nonchalance and worry. Once their existential pingpong game begins, all bets are off.
Actually, the brilliant execution slightly outstrips the content. All elements certainly achieve cohesion, but the scenario's symbolism meanders a bit, with the lack of any clear serpent analogy a missed opportunity. Yet when Kronis leaves the stage with a rake to reappear on screen attacking grass, or when Alger dons glasses "to look slightly more intelligent than I am" and karate-chops an apple, it's hard to resist "Monster," a frequently breathtaking example of their kinesthetic ingenuity.
"Monster of Happiness," 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., L.A. 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 10:30 p.m. Saturday, June 30 and July 7 only. Ends July 14. $25. (800) 838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com/event/16026. Running time: 70 minutes.